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Alien: Isolation

How Creative Assembly designed Alien: Isolation's terrifyingly clever xenomorph

Alien: Isolation burst out of Creative Assembly's chest yesterday, splattering previews all over the internet and making us spill our collective cereal — here is my Alien: Isolation preview, in case you're interested in finding out more. The game plays, in the parts we've been shown at least, like Amnesia in space, with only a solitary, highly intelligent and free-roaming xenomorph forming the game's horror centrepiece.

Gary Napper, lead designer at Creative Assembly, and Jude Bond, lead artist, spoke to me about how to create a truly terrifying artificial intelligence, what they thought of recent games in the franchise and how Alien: Isolation hopes to sustain a level of tension from start to finish that doesn't result in heart-stopping fatalities. Come have a look at the words we said to one another.

PCGamesN, Steve: During the studio tour you showed us a really interesting flow chart of the alien's behaviour, which included some branches to do with ambushing and trapping. Is that something the alien is capable of?

Gary Napper, lead designer: Ah yes, so we have several layers of behaviour we can add to the alien. We can make things available to the level designers so they can tweak his behaviour in certain ways. So if the alien’s going to be more of a threat up in the rafters or behind the scenes, they can do things to make him burst out of vents in places and then attack the player – and it’s those sorts of traps we’re talking about. So he’s not “laying traps” so to speak, he himself is laying in wait.

We kind of wanted to go from the first film where he’s kind of hiding in the pipes and you might not notice him as you walk past, then the steam comes out and he leaps out at you – stuff like that we’re looking at, yeah.

PCGN: Traditionally in Alien games there are a lot of scripted scares. Did you guys find it difficult predicting how this autonomous alien AI would act and react, and whether it would deliver the "right" type of scares to the player?

GN: Well, there are things we can do balance the behaviour, because although we do have an alien AI that ultimately utilises its senses and does what it wants when it’s hunting, we can tweak the amount it hunts and the amount that the player sees it, and we have various values for these settings. We’ve almost got him in like, different flavours; this one’s mild, this one’s aggressive, “moderately intense”, you know? 

And we can also create individual versions of that for a specific scenario. So we may say “okay, this level feels absolutely great when he’s in your face the entire time” – and none of our four flavours will fit it – so let’s add three more and we can ramp up and down those according to various factors in the level. So we can say to the level designers: “when you’re building this experience, try and systematically think what the alien is going to do. But if you need to ramp up his behaviour, you can script a change in his behaviour.” So it’s ultimately working with the systematic behaviour set, and tweaking it to what you need him to do, rather than saying “jump out of this door and kill the player here” you know?

PCGN: How about things like environmental scares, are there any dynamic elements to the environment? For instance, is a pipe more likely to explode during a very tense moment rather than a not-so-tense moment?

GN: Well it’s kind of one of those things where we wanted to leave it up to the level designers. If they’ve got a specific encounter in mind, we’ve said rather than every time you cross that threshold this explodes, try and make that as unpredictable as the alien itself, because if that’s going to happen every time, everyone’s going to have that exact same experience. So we’re trying to encourage them to – say, if you’re trying to find something in an area, it could be in one of three places, or if there’s going to be an explosion it could be at the end of this corridor or down another place and it might not happen where you expect it to. 

Jude Bond, lead artist: To use the example of the exploding pipe, yes a level designer could provide variety like that to the player, but the environment itself is reactive and dynamic, so if a player does do X then there is a systemic response that can be delivered by the environment. I don’t think there’s anything in that demo that really shows that we’ve got some amazing stuff up our sleeves, things to create a different playthrough every time. 

GN: And what’s amazing for me today has been the difference between some of the playthroughs that you guys have. A couple of journalists here have died once or twice and I’m like “wow, that’s really, really lucky”, most people are dying like eight or nine times. One guy died something like thirty times, and he just put down the pad and was like “that was the most incredible alien!” And he was just getting killed by it on purpose, just to see what it would do and learn from it.

PCGN: Yes! I noticed when I died and I got back to the same spot that the alien’s behaviour was different, he'd appear in a different spot or from a different direction. So dying and seeing him behave in an entirely different way was very interesting.

JB: Yeah, it’s very rewarding. Coming back to what you were saying about if it was harder to work with a dynamic alien rather than a scripted alien, I think that really this just wouldn't work if it’s scripted. It’s like “right, I’ll go around here, then I’ll get jumped by the alien and get killed – back to the checkpoint, I know what’s going to happen.” We needed that sense of unknown things to deliver horror that was actually horrific. You need to be able to go “what's in those shadows around the corner? I don’t know” – and you’re right, you don’t know, we’re not going to tell you and you’re going to have to go and find out.

GN: I think the only time it’s been difficult is when it’s got the jump on us! I remember one time we were testing through a level we made, and we changed some of the door behaviours, so they’d gone from being manual to automatic. We’d had the Alien prowling around behind an area behind some locked doors – so I thought I was safe – I opened the door, PSSSST, and there was this alien just looking back at me and I’m like “arrghh shit!”. I just had to put down the pad and take off my headphones, heart racing, hah!

PCGN: The section that we played in the playtest, we're told that's about halfway through the game?

GN: Just over halfway, yeah.

PCGN: Obviously that level of tension can’t be sustained over the course of the entire game. Can you describe how you’re pacing the experience outside of this demo?

GN: Well, it’s all peaks and troughs when you’re working with tension building. You have an event and then it goes off and then you gradually introduce it. What you played today actually... it had a lot more mechanics in it, originally. We had a lot more of the things you collect later in the game, a lot more abilities of the player. We made a decision to show you guys the pure experience of you with nothing, the alien at a base level, and just seeing how that plays, so you’ve got an idea of exactly what we’re aiming for. 

So when you take a step back and look at all the abilities that a player can have and learn, and all the things the alien can do to react to that, then when you tie that to the level design, you’ve actually got a huge set of behaviours and a toolset to use. And it’s not just that we build up abilities in a straight line, we remove some of them in some circumstances and see what happens. We’ve got some really nice areas of the game where we kind of play with the mechanics and throw the alien at you in different ways. It’s been a question we’ve had a fair amount of – how can we maintain that tension? – but I think it just comes down to your core game design and how you tie it in with the story and the atmosphere and the flow of the game as a whole.

PCGN: Can you describe some of those player abilities that you mentioned?

GN: Well, most of them are based around things you find in the world. So you can find things like you can maybe use to distract the alien or construct some things that would help you defend yourself against the alien. And like I said, all of these things are things that the alien reacts to and then ends up learning from. So if you can imagine... I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil it but imagine you’re on this space station that was designed for like, five thousand people, it’s in its last stages of operation, it’s kind of failed and there are only a few hundred people left – imagine what you’ll find in that environment and use and that’s the type of thing that we’re aiming for.

PCGN: Are there parts of the game that play... let’s say more like a traditional shooter? I noticed a reload button in the controls layout, so there'll be guns?

GN: Well spotted! Well we wanted to leave little hints at what we want for later on in the game – we said before the game was about surviving and scavenging, and you do find ammo, small calibre weapons and things you can craft and build. So there are other threats on the station, but the entire game should be about: if you see a shadow, you’re terrified it’s going to be the big alien.

JB: Because it could be.

PCGN:The demo showed some scrap collection, I could pick up some objects in the environment, what purpose do the scraps and the materials you collect serve?

GN: That’s the basis of our crafting system, where you can craft things in the environment to help. Someone said earlier on today that the crew of the Nostromo were basically the original MacGyvers: they had to survive against this alien with just the stuff they had on board, and that’s exactly the same situation on the station.

JB: Our whole mantra throughout the project has been improvise to survive and so we are presenting you with the ultimate killing machine, he is going to hunt you and unless you can improvise, you’re not going to survive. So improvisation is one of our pillars really, and our crafting system partially facilitates that as do other things that we aren’t allowed to talk about yet. It’s about survival. It isn’t like it turns into a more traditional shooter elsewhere, it’s not about shooting at all – you need to survive encounters with the alien rather than defeat him.

GN: Still to this day, the question we get quite a lot is: you put a gun on the screen in first person and people instantly think: “I’ve got to shoot some stuff” and it’s just absolutely amazing when we see people pick up this game for the first time. They turn around with a gun in their hand pointed at the alien and instead of shooting they just put it away, and we’re like “Yesss! They’ve got it!” They understand that this is just something you want to avoid.

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Great interview Steve. After Colonial Marines I have to admit I kind of skipped over Isolation, but I'm glad I came back and read this article. The idea of it being based around an AI driven alien is fascinating and it really makes the alien the star of the show, just as it did in the film. I'll be watching a lot more closely from now on.

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